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The "Memogate" Affair: A Case Study On Privacy In Computer Networks

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2005 Annual Conference


Portland, Oregon

Publication Date

June 12, 2005

Start Date

June 12, 2005

End Date

June 15, 2005



Conference Session

Ethical Roles: Admins, Government, Industry

Page Count


Page Numbers

10.1254.1 - 10.1254.8



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Edward Gehringer

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

Session 1440

The “Memogate” Affair: A Case Study on Privacy in Computer Networks

Edward F. Gehringer North Carolina State University


Privacy is one of the core issues in any Ethics in Computing course. It is important for system administrators to keep sensitive data private, but suppose they don’t? Then what are the obligations of someone who accidentally gains access to this data? This is the crux of the issue in last year’s “Memogate” case involving the Senate Judiciary Committee. Files on the Judiciary computer system were mistakenly left unprotected. This allowed Manuel Miranda, a staffer in the office of Judiciary Committee Chairman Bill Frist, to view confidential memos written by Democrats on the committee. These documents revealed political maneuvering and some actions that were arguably unethical. Miranda was fired by Frist, but engaged in a spirited defense of his actions in the media. The legalities of this behavior are in dispute, with prosecution being a possibility. This case raises several ethical questions, including, How much of an obligation does one have to avoid viewing the private information of others? Does it depend on whether the administrator knew the documents were unprotected, and did nothing to “fix” it? Can this obligation be outweighed by an obligation to expose (other) unethical activity? To what extent is this action similar to a student viewing someone else’s unprotected computer code and then submitting it as his/her own work? Or suppose the student just viewed it, but did not submit it; would that still be unethical? This case can serve as interesting, current, case study in privacy rights in a computer network.

1. Introduction

The ACM/IEEE-CS Computing Curricula 2001 [1], in its Social and Professional issues area, lists seven “core” units that should be a part of any curriculum. Unit SP7 is “Privacy and civil liberties.” Students need to understand the importance of placing appropriate access restrictions on sensitive information, and of not breaching the confidentiality of private information that might come into their possession. An effective method of instilling understanding is the case- study approach, in which students are presented with real-world examples of dilemmas that they might encounter, and challenged to apply ethical principles in deciding on a proper course of action.

A good case study has several attributes. It should require students to evaluate competing objectives (e.g., the interests of one’s employer vs. the interests of society). It should be realistic—something that could actually happen, or has happened. It should pose ethical challenges that are distinct from whatever legal issues are involved; after all, we are teaching ethics and not law. It should provoke spirited discussion; often the best cases are ones that are controversial, where students might reasonably take opposing sides.

The “Memogate” case from the (U.S.) Senate Judiciary Committee in 2004 seems to have all of these attributes. The basic question is strikingly simple: Is it ethical to read and disclose the contents of other users’ unprotected computer files? Should the answer be a clear “yes” or “no”,

Proceedings of the 2005 American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference & Exposition Copyright ! 2005, American Society for Engineering Education

Gehringer, E. (2005, June), The "Memogate" Affair: A Case Study On Privacy In Computer Networks Paper presented at 2005 Annual Conference, Portland, Oregon. 10.18260/1-2--14834

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